In recent years, events such as the 2016 Presidential election and the #MeToo movement have ushered the plight of sexual assault victims into the national spotlight. Even though sexual assault is grossly underreported, the statistics are alarming. In 2017, Florida’s Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) reported 7,900 rape offenses and 274 attempted rape offenses. About 600 of these incidents took place in or around Clearwater in Pinellas County. Almost 500 of the crimes were “rape by force,” and the remaining offenses include attempted rapes and incidents of forcible fondling. Pinellas County had the sixth highest number of sexual assault crimes of all Florida counties in 2017.
Sexual assault victims often do not report, or wait to report, their attack. The reasons for their reluctance to report vary. They may feel intimidated by their offender, confused about what happened, embarrassed about having become a victim, or a combination of these factors. This guide offers you some general information about sexual assault in Florida and steps sexual assault victims in Pinellas County can take to seek justice.
How Florida Defines Sexual Assault Crimes
States vary in how they define sex crimes. Florida statutes do not use the terms “rape” or “sexual assault,” but instead refer to this class of offenses as “sexual battery”; however, some agencies, such as the FDLE, do refer to sexual battery by the those more everyday terms.
Sexual battery is a felony in Florida. Florida law defines sexual battery as:
“…oral, anal, or vaginal penetration by, or union with, the sexual organ of another or the anal or vaginal penetration of another by any other object.”
Consent, or lack of consent, is the key to any criminal or civil case that involves sexual assault. Physical resistance does not need to be present for lack of consent. Florida law identifies the following scenarios as first degree sexual assault:
- The victim is physically helpless to resist.
- The offender uses force or violence or threatens force or violence to coerce the victim.
- The offender threatens to retaliate against the victim to as a form of coercion.
- The offender gives or knows that another has given the victim any substance that mentally or physically incapacitates the victim.
- The victim is “mentally defective,” and the offender knows this.
- The victim is physically incapacitated.
- The offender is one of a wide range of people connected to the law—police, correctional officers, probation officers, etc.—and uses that authority, whether real or pretend, to coerce the victim.
Why Sexual Assaults Go Under-reported
Regardless of their gender, many sexual assault victims do not report their assault or wait days, months, or sometimes years before reporting the assault to anyone. Being sexually assaulted is not only a physical violation of one’s body, but it also inflicts deep emotional wounds. According to this article from Psychology Today by a licensed psychotherapist, the reasons victims may not report sexual assault or delay reporting it can include:
- Feelings of shame, humiliation, and embarrassment. Victims of sexual assault often have feelings of shame surrounding their attack. They may feel that they are unworthy or blame themselves for the assault. Victims who feel shame may also experience humiliation at having to share the details of their attack with law enforcement or in court.
- Minimization of an attack. Sexual assault victims, especially women, have been known to react to an attack by “minimizing” it in their own minds. Often, a victim will compare her assault to others she has heard about, perhaps from a friend who was raped or in news stories, and conclude her assault was not as “bad” as those others because, for example, her attacker did not use a weapon, or did not strike her. Victims who compare their trauma to others often mistakenly conclude that what they endured was not “bad enough” to deserve justice.
- Fear of social consequences and retaliation. Many victims worry about the social or professional costs that might accompany reporting sexual assault. This is especially common when a victim knows the offender, which is the case in 70 percent of sexual assaults, including assaults by spouses, significant others, and co-workers. When coming forward to report the crime, victims may worry about what those in their social or professional circles might think. They may also fear retaliation from their attacker in the form of another attack or workplace consequences.
- The assault occurred while a victim was drugged or under the influence. Sometimes, victims who had been using drugs and/or alcohol at the time of the attack feel responsible for putting themselves in a vulnerable position, and that they deserved what happened to them. In those cases, victims may also have little or no memory of the attack. They may fear no one will believe them if they struggle to remember details, or that people will blame them for their drug or alcohol use.
Sexual Assault Victims’ Rights in Florida
Once law enforcement and the prosecuting attorney have decided to charge a sexual battery, the victim receives the protection of certain victims’ rights in Florida, including:
- A right to keep the victim’s name, address, and other personal information confidential and private
- A right to be informed if the offender has been released from jail or prison
- A right to have input about the offender’s plea and sentencing
- A right to seek restitution
- A right to testify about the physical, social, and emotional effects of the crime
- A right to take time off from work or school
Steps Victims Can Take After A Sexual Assault
Emotional responses to sexual assault vary among victims, including feelings of hopelessness, anger, depression, or fear of certain places or interactions. Of course, victim safety should always be the number one priority. Anyone in danger or fearing for their immediate safety should call 911 for help.
Once safe, victims should know that they do not have to go through the difficult time following a sexual assault alone. In Florida, there is a broad network of advocates and support professionals who can help victims recover from the trauma of sexual assault and even seek justice. No one deserves to be sexually assaulted. Although reporting an assault can be very difficult, it is also very brave and can help prevent another person from being assaulted. Victims of sexual assault can help themselves and other potential victims by taking the following steps:
- Report the attack to law enforcement. A victim can report a sexual assault in a variety of ways. She can call 911, for instance, and a police officer will respond to her call and gather information about her attack. She can report an assault in person at her nearest police station. She can also dial 211 from anywhere in Pinellas County to reach Sexual Assault Services of Pinellas County, or call them directly at (727) 530-RAPE (7273), and they will coordinate outreach to the law enforcement agency.
- Seek medical attention. Victims should always, if possible, seek immediate medical attention after a sexual assault. At a hospital emergency department, a victim can receive urgent care and report the assault to a healthcare professional. To ensure that the perpetrator is identified and can be brought to justice, it can be critical for healthcare professionals to administer a Sexual Assault Victim Exam (also sometimes called a “rape kit”) during that medical visit. This examination includes collecting any DNA that the attacker may have left on the victim’s body or clothing. When a victim undergoes a SAVE exam, law enforcement is more likely to find the offender, more likely to hold the attacker accountable, and more likely to prevent future attacks. After an assault, a victim’s first instinct may be to take a shower or bath. Before doing so, however, it can be important for victims to first seek medical attention and have a SAVE exam done, to ensure the collection of important evidence.
- Seek mental health counseling. Sexual assaults can take an enormous emotional and psychological toll on victims, often causing them to experience depression and anxiety, and to struggle at work or in school and have difficulty maintaining personal relationships with friends and family. Some victims also suffer from flashbacks and panic attacks. Advocates for victims of sexual assault encourage seeking mental health counseling, whether in the form of individual therapy, joining a survivors support group, or any other form of mental health care that may help the victims cope with their trauma. Because some victims also instinctually want to put an assault behind them without working through the challenges, advocates also encourage friends and family of assault victims to keep an eye out for signs of deteriorating mental health.
How a Personal Injury Attorney Can Help Sexual Assault Victims
Sexual assault is a crime. In Florida, the victim’s local state attorney’s office handles the task of prosecuting the sexual assault perpetrator. Victims typically do not need to retain an attorney in connection with these criminal proceedings.
However, there are circumstances surrounding a sexual assault in which it can be helpful to retain a skilled, compassionate personal injury attorney who can help a victim recover compensation and seek personal justice after an attack. For example:
- The assault happened at school. If the victim was sexually assaulted by a student or employee at a publicly funded school, college, or university, the victim may have rights under the federal anti-discrimination law known as Title IX. A lawyer can help the victim navigate the reporting process under this law, which will typically prompt a civil rights investigation in addition to the one initiated by criminal proceedings, and may lead to findings that support a claim against the school for compensation. In connection with that investigation, a personal injury attorney may also be able a victim communicate with the school about taking time off and receiving accommodations to help the victim cope with the after-effects of the attack.
- The assault happened at work or the attacker was a co-worker. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and corresponding provisions of Florida law, protect employees from sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace. A victim who has been assaulted at work or by an attacker who is a colleague, supervisor, or other co-worker may be entitled to seek compensation from the employer under those laws. A skilled personal injury attorney can help victims of workplace and work-related sexual assault investigate and pursue claims against an employer, and can help protect the victim from potential retaliation by an employer for reporting an assault.
- The attacker has been identified. Victims of sexual assault in which the attacker has been identified, whether by the victim or through forensic analysis, may be able to seek compensation directly from the attacker for physical and emotional damages.
Time can be an important factor in these cases. Florida’s statute of limitations for filing a claim against a sexual assault perpetrator vary depending upon the age of the victim:
- If the victim was a minor, the victim can initiate legal action against the attacker until reaching 25 years of age.
- If the victim was a dependent of the attacker, the victim has four years from leaving that dependency to file a suit.
- All other victims have four years to bring legal action against an employer, either from the date of the assault or, in some cases, from the date of discovering that an assault occurred.
Most insurance policies, homeowners’ or otherwise, do not cover acts of intentional harm done to someone else, which means that a sexual assault victim may only be able to recover compensation directly from an attacker if the attacker has significant assets. Because of this sad reality, Florida established a Crime Victim Compensation (CVC) Fund to help compensate victims of sexual assault. A skilled personal injury attorney can help victims understand their options for recovering compensation from the CVC Fund and guide them through the process of seeking compensation if appropriate.
Hire a Skilled Personal Injury Attorney in Clearwater
If you are a victim of sexual assault, you may be entitled to seek compensation for the economic and non-economic losses that your attack caused. The compassionate and diligent attorneys at Dolman Law Group may be able to help. Email our Clearwater office or dial (727) 451-6900 to schedule a confidential, free consultation.
Dolman Law Group
800 North Belcher Road
Clearwater, FL 33765